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For Sandy Clough, Retirement Is Just The Beginning

“The best thing for me in radio and in talk radio was working with a person I connected to,” Clough said.

Derek Futterman

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One of Denver’s most notable pundits, Sandy Clough, grew up in the suburbs of Westchester County on the sounds of the aggressive, often-combative talk shows taking place just south in “The Big Apple.” 40 years later, he is stepping away from the microphone moving towards a new chapter of his life and grateful for what the industry has bestowed upon him: a chance to be heard and express his nascent infatuation with sports.

Clough remembers being in his bedroom late at night when he was younger – the moon shining brightly outside as the nighttime hours ran their course. By the looks of his room, everything would appear to be normal – but appearances sometimes misrepresent reality. Akin to how a child hides a recently-lost baby tooth under their pillow with the hopes of finding money the next morning, Clough had a transistor radio concealed with the faint yet energetic sounds of sporting events. Whether it was the Mets, Yankees, Knicks. or Rangers, he would absorb the atmosphere and the game itself while the broadcasters painted a picture of the setting through their linguistic command and technical cognizance.

Beyond that, he was captivated by radio as a medium and its ability to transmit the mellifluous sounds of competition, debate and news to listeners by means of an AM or FM signal. He wanted to be a part of it by moving to the other side of the speaker, serving as a source of intrigue and imagination for listeners; their investment in sports notwithstanding.

“I was always attracted to sports,” Clough said. “….I just was captivated by it and really as much by radio as by sports. I’m one of the luckiest people around in that I got to pursue, as a career, something that melded the two.”

As a native New Yorker, Clough had primarily been exposed to the sound of local radio in the 1970s – a time before the launch of WFAN, the first-ever radio station to solely adopt the sports talk format. That is not to say the landscape was bereft of programming discussing sports before that; however, they were not on stations with that focus for the entirety of the day. Even outside of the realm of sports talk though, there was a certain sound indicative of New York City that resonated with Clough and served as the early foundation of his distinctive style.

“I’m an introvert in my personal life, but on the air I really like to perform,” Clough said. “I’ve always tried to be honest and fair but I had some incredible models growing up – both play-by-play broadcasters and talk show hosts.”

In 1979, Clough accepted a full-time radio job in Denver, with KOA 850 AM, a news radio outlet serving as the flagship station of the National Football League’s Denver Broncos. While there, he was the producer of what he refers to as “the best talk show” he has ever heard called Sports from A-to-Z, featuring play-by-play announcer Al Albert and sports anchor Ron Zappolo. Both Albert and Zappolo served as integral mentors for Clough as he sought to make a name for himself in the industry and offered him different perspectives regarding hosting.

“It gave me a chance to find out right away what the business was about and about the nitty-gritty details,” Clough said. “….Their passion rubbed off on me; their preparation rubbed off on me; their personalities rubbed off on me…. They were great people; I loved producing for them and I could have done that forever.”

The staff at KOA 850 AM was largely made up of play-by-play announcers, meaning that many of them were often on the road simultaneously. At 22 years old, he was placed on the air on various different talk shows for the purposes of lack of availability or interest and was willing to do anything it took to cement himself as a part of the industry. Clough was the regular host of Bronco Talk, an hour-and-a-half show following Denver Broncos games in which he would deliver a monologue about the action and then take calls from fans.

This came at the cusp of the debut of Broncos quarterback John Elway and the development of the team into a perennial contender, giving fans a voice with which they could celebrate wins or lament about losses – on a few conditions.

“Many people who [listened] to me didn’t think I was celebrating or consoling much of anyone,” Clough said. “It was a lot of fun to go back and forth with callers, and all I asked was that they not misrepresent what I had said and [that] they have their facts right… and if they were wrong to acknowledge, ‘I was wrong on the facts,’ or ‘I’m sorry I misrepresented what you said.’”

Across town, Carl Scheer had crafted the nearby Denver Nuggets franchise, then-part of the American Basketball Association, into a 65-win team in the 1974-75 season. Once Clough began taking the air and talking about Denver’s sports teams, Scheer took a liking to his hosting style as it was something not previously heard.

Additionally, Clough made it a point to attend sporting events around the city of Denver to interact with players, coaches and other team personnel, along with the fans to give him a better understanding of his audience. Even when he was working as the color commentator during home games for the National Hockey League’s Colorado Rockies in the year prior to the team’s move and subsequent rebrand as the New Jersey Devils, Clough still found a way to attend at least 30 of the team’s 41 regular season home games.

Another reason he traveled beyond the studio walls was to truly gain an understanding of why teams won and lost games, as it better informed his preparation and parlance while working. Additionally, it allowed people he had discussed or critiqued on the air to have a chance to respond to him face-to-face, just as Albert and Zappolo had taught him. In this, his credibility in the marketplace was built and a sense of respect was garnered towards him among his peers.

“There were a number of… people along the way – coaches; players; front office people; owners even – who gave me the benefit of their wisdom,” Clough said. “It didn’t mean I didn’t ever criticize them because I did, but I never criticized anyone or praised anyone based on whether I liked them personally or not.”

In 1990, Clough moved to KYBG-AM, a small sports radio station owned by Century Broadcasting at which he continued to cover sports in the Denver area. Upon the federal adoption of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — most notably the clause removing limits on the number of national AM/FM stations an entity could own — smaller stations were bought out. Because of this, employees were often put out of a job especially if the station switched formats. The cross-ownership of media and ability for anyone to have a stake in communications was now encouraged, harming the existence of independent stations akin to KYBG-AM.

After a short time out of work and cultivation of fanbases for two new teams – Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies and the National Hockey League’s Colorado Avalanche – Clough joined KFFN. The station was widely known as 950 AM The Fan until the station’s change to the 104.3 FM frequency about a decade later.

Over his 25-and-a-half years with the station, Clough has been adroit in his ability to connect with an audience – regardless of whether he was hosting the show solo or with partner(s). Some of those partners have included Scott Hastings, Brandon Stokley, Orlando Franklin and, most recently, Shawn Drotar on their weekday nighttime show Sandy and Shawn.

“The best thing for me in radio and in talk radio was working with a person I connected to,” Clough said. “[When] there was a chemistry from the beginning, that was the best. The worst is working with someone, not necessarily someone you personally dislike, but someone with whom you have no chemistry and nothing really clicks.”

Clough’s preparation for each show, whether or not he was hosting solo, was to expect no callers and to have three hours to fill by himself. By preparing in this way, Clough was always ready to talk about storylines that extended far beyond the superficial nature of a sporting event and made sure to come across as more erudite than sciolistic to his audience. While the situation never unfolded, there were many times on the air where the preparation benefited him and allowed him to be an engaging and informative source of entertainment regardless of which daypart he was hosting in, all of which he has vast experience in much like his broadcast idol Allen Berg.

“Allen did shows early in the day [and] late in the day,” Clough explained. “He could do straight, hard interviews as well as anybody. When he was on at night, he was more free-wheeling [and] that made sense to me [because] at night, you’re dealing with more of the hard-core sports fans. Early in the day and really maybe up until drive time in the afternoon, you’re dealing with fans that are a little more casual.”

The nature of audience interaction in talk radio has changed as consumption habits and technology have evolved. As a result, there has been an alteration in the fundamental structure of a radio program in which fewer listeners call in to offer their opinions but still engaging with the show.

“As time has gone on in talk radio, we’re less and less reliant on phone calls and more on texts, for example, in communicating directly with the audience,” Clough stated. “The shows are much more guest-oriented now.”

One thing Clough never became invested in over his career though was the use of social media platforms. He has no social media accounts of his own and, during his career, relied on connecting with the audience in more traditional ways while being open to progressions elsewhere.

“I saw too many friends get into trouble and lose their jobs – even lose their careers – because of what had happened on social media,” Clough explained. “….I just thought the risk far outweighed the benefits. I didn’t like the vibe I got from social media; not all of the time but much of the time. If I can’t communicate over the course of three hours clearly and effectively, then I shouldn’t be in radio. I don’t need to be on social media telling people what I had for breakfast. Nobody cares about me that much.”

Maintaining a strong sense of objectivity is an essential aspect of journalists’ ability to provide unbiased coverage towards the teams they cover. Being able to identify professional obligations over personal rooting interests meant that rather than rooting for any specific team, it is better to root for good stories and topics that would stimulate conversation that would appeal to the audience.

“I admired and respected individuals but I never rooted for or against teams,” Clough said. “I know this sounds pollyannaish but I rooted for good stories. The two greatest stories in sports are ‘Big guy wins’ and ‘Big guy loses.’ The only thing I didn’t enjoy as much was mediocrity; just being average. Either be very good or very bad.”

Nonetheless, there were times throughout his career where Clough believes he moved beyond simply having a professional relationship, threatening his ability to legitimately maintain his objectivity.

“I don’t think it affected my commentary [or] made it any less unvarnished [and] I don’t believe I ever pulled any punches, but I got too close to a few people,” he said. “Even subconsciously if that had an effect and at times maybe it did, I have to concede that point. I’m a human being; if I’m treated well, I will treat the other person well in turn. I always tried to keep my relationships respectful and friendly as it relates to having open lines of communication but… I always tried to maintain a certain distance.”

104.3 The Fan, which is now owned and operated by Bonneville International, is currently led by Program Director Raj Sharan who has worked at the station in some capacity since 2016, including as a show producer for Clough. Sharan began his career in public relations and moved into radio in 2010 with the Front Range Sports Network, developing the expertise and technical acumen necessary to lead a major market radio station, ranked No. 13 in Barrett Sports Media’s top 20 major market radio stations of 2021.

“Like so many other Denver sports fans, I spent hours glued to The Fan listening to Sandy Clough entertain and educate,” Sharan said in a statement announcing Clough’s retirement. “It was thrilling to have the opportunity to produce Sandy as there’s never been a more prepared host. Sandy’s passion came through the speakers in captivating fashion, and his legacy will be forever engrained into The Fan, carrying on for generations to come.”

Clough has sought to have professional relationships with his colleagues and managers over the years and has utilized the various program directors he has worked under for feedback and advice on how to best craft his shows to create a solid on-air product. Through being coached and meticulously preparing and understanding his audience, he has cultivated on-air products that finish well in the ratings and, in turn, are able to gain more revenue.

“They critiqued me, but if criticism was necessary they would offer it and I welcomed that,” Clough said of working with program directors over the years. “….With every program director I’ve ever dealt with, I explained [that] I wanted to be coached hard. I was coached hard, especially when I was younger and I would make mistakes.”

Now after 40 years on the air, Clough is retiring from working as a full-time host with 104.3 The Fan, ending a robust broadcast career interacting with listeners and covering Denver’s sports teams. The change was prompted by a culmination of different factors, along with a keen awareness of the future of radio as a communications medium in an era with more media outlets than ever before.

“Increasingly, radio executives [and] radio owners are shifting their emphasis to digital,” Clough explained. “I believe as much as newspapers have evolved to the point where most of all newspaper reading is done online now, that will be true with radio. There will be packages, I think in the not too distant future, offered for every radio station and people can subscribe if they choose and get all the content they want for a certain price. That resulted in the deemphasis and even elimination of nighttime radio.”

At this point, Clough felt it would be best to exit from the business to pursue other opportunities in which he can make an impact; however, that does not mean he may never consider returning to radio in the future. For now though, he plans to take at least six months in retirement to see where his life takes him and will reevaluate a potential return or becoming involved in sports media in some other way down the road.

“I’m a traditionalist; I’m a purist; I’m even a perfectionist,” Clough said. “I’d like to think I was adaptable, but this seemed like a good time to get out of at least full-time work at 104.3 The Fan.”

Clough leaves 104.3 The Fan as the co-host of the highest-ranked talk show in Denver in the 9 p.m. to midnight time period amid strong ratings for the station as a whole. Moreover, he is grateful for the recognition he has received from his friends and colleagues since his retirement became official this past Friday.

For aspiring professionals looking to build a career in sports media though, Clough reminds them that they are not indispensable no matter how good they think they are, meaning it is essential to leave your ego at the door. Aside from that, while being versatile is likely to increase your value to whatever broadcast entity you work for, it remains crucial to prepare as a host and embrace your own personality. It is what helped Sandy Clough work in sports media for the last 40 years, leaving behind a legacy and reputation among Denver sports fans as a trusted, honest commentator ready to demonstrate his intelligence and share his opinions to the masses.

“Chart your own path, be authentic, be yourself and even if you’re different, hold on to that,” Clough said. “We have too many cookie-cutter people in our business now; too many people who listen to something and decide: ‘Well, that’s the way I’ll go. I’ll just go along and get along with everybody’ or ‘I’ll be controversial for the sake of being controversial. I’ll just say outrageous things all the time.’ Those are at the two extreme edges of the spectrum [so] find those gray areas.”

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The NBA Play-In Tournament is Simply About Money

By most estimates, the PIT has added millions of dollars in value for the league’s broadcast partners.

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Graphic for the NBA Play in Tournament

No, the NBA play-in tournament won’t save the league. But that’s not the same as saying it doesn’t matter.

In truth, the PIT, as we’ll call it, has done almost exactly what the league’s owners had hoped it would. It drives up a little interest in the NBA’s product before the playoffs proper begin this weekend. It’s sort of an appetizer for the courses to come.

It also drives a few bucks into the pockets of the league’s broadcast partners, and for Adam Silver & Co., that’s the point, of course. Aesthetics aside, if the PIT wasn’t a moneymaker, we’d never speak of it again, very happily.

This creature, after all, is a bit of a mess. It’s clearly contrived. It was hatched during the pandemic as the NBA tried to figure out how to survive its 2020 bubble summer, which tells you most of what you need to know about the motives.

And it can skew ugly. This week’s offerings featured two solidly sub-.500 Eastern Conference teams, Chicago and Atlanta. Under the NBA’s previous top-8 format, the East’s lowest-qualifying playoff team would’ve been Miami at 46-36. That’s respectable.

But the PIT isn’t about respectable; it’s about spectacle. As this year’s version got underway, there were a couple of tantalizing storylines – only a couple, but that’s all you usually need.

In the West, teams featuring LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, Zion Williamson, and De’Aaron Fox were all jockeying for their post-season survival. Why? Because their respective teams were merely okay for most of the season, never great.

But you can see why Silver and the NBA owners favored adding a few more playoff possibles in the first place. Again, going back to the top-8 grid of playoffs past, both the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings would’ve been on the outside looking in. Instead, viewers got a Warriors-Kings elimination game on Tuesday night.

The notion of seeing Curry and his crew go out in a one-game tire fire is generally going to be worth a few eyeballs – and that’s the whole ballgame here. Last year’s six PIT games, broadcast on ESPN and TNT, averaged 2.64 million viewers, a 5% increase from the year before.

That’s how this works. By most estimates, the PIT has added millions of dollars in value for the league’s broadcast partners. You can argue that, depending upon the year, the 7-8-9-10 configuration also heightens interest in the last couple of weeks of the regular season, simply because nobody wants to be relegated to the 9-10 elimination game.

It all matters to a league that, like most sports enterprises in America, is trying to figure out the viewer landscape amid a rapidly changing market. Silver acknowledged as much last fall in an interview with Yahoo Sports, saying that the decline in cable subscriptions “has disproportionately impacted the NBA” because the league’s fan demographic trends younger but the remaining cable audience is older.

“Our young audience isn’t subscribing to cable,” Silver told Yahoo, “and those fans aren’t finding our games.”

There’s no doubt the NBA is addressing that issue as it negotiates with TNT and ESPN, whose rights expire in 2025. While cable options might be cut back, the league has to find a way to expand its reach through a significant streaming partnership. It could be part of the impending ESPN/Fox/Warner platform or something else, but it needs to be easily identifiable and easily accessed.

You’d go a little crazy trying to figure out where the NBA stands in terms of viewership. Its opening night last fall was a bust, but the new in-season tournament was a ratings hit. The league got smoked by the NFL on Christmas Day, enjoyed a huge uptick on All-Star Saturday Night, then played a desultory All-Star Game only to see viewer numbers go up from the year before. (Granted, that was a rise from an all-time ratings low.)

Silver, who’s wrapping up a contract extension that will keep him in the commissioner’s job through the end of the decade, has been warily eyeing the TV numbers for years. He isn’t new to any of the concerns, and he has been forcefully behind both the in-season tournament and this PIT creation, which everyone involved has no problem labeling a blatant viewership ploy.

That’s because, for lack of a crisper phrase, it is what it is. The play-in is every bit as basic as it looks, and it was put in place for no reason other than to expand the playoff field and generate a little extra heat through the schedule’s final few weeks, along with these early days of the post-season.

And it generates millions. For Silver and Co, that’s the end of the conversation.

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Verne Lundquist Deserved All The Praise and More During Final Broadcast

Verne Lundquist might be the last of a dying breed. And for all of the fantastic moments he’s had behind the microphone, there was a missed opportunity for one final hurrah.

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A photo of Verne Lundquist
(Photo: Paul David Morris)

Verne Lundquist deserved to call the final holes of The Masters for CBS Sports on Sunday.

While celebrating his 40th time calling golf’s grandest stage, it also marked the end of his illustrious broadcasting career. Lundquist has been a fixture not only at Augusta but also on CBS Sports properties like the SEC on CBS, the Army/Navy Game, and the NCAA Tournament.

But Verne Lundquist is part of the last of a dying TV play-by-play breed.

He was never going to make his final assignment about him.

When you tuned into a broadcast being called by the 83-year-old, you were bound to witness a broadcasting masterclass. The ability to weave humor in and out of the broadcast, along with tenacious prep work, fantastic storytelling, and an intricate knowledge of letting the pictures tell the story were Lundquist’s trademarks.

Take, for instance, his call of the famous “Kick Six” in the 2013 Iron Bowl. In 25 seconds of action, the only thing he says is “On the way … No. Returned by Chris Davis. Davis goes left. Davis gets a block. Davis has another block! Chris Davis! No flags! Touchdown, Auburn! An answered prayer!”

He didn’t speak for the next 65 seconds, letting the pictures — some of which have lived on in infamy — tell the story.

It wasn’t overhyped catchphrases, screaming, or “look at me!” energy that has somewhat permeated modern television play-by-play that made Lundquist a TV legend. It was a dedication to the craft.

It was great to see so many tributes from not just fellow broadcasters but also from some of the PGA Tour players — especially Tiger Woods — for Lundquist in his final assignments.

Make no mistake about it: Verne Lundquist is a titan of the industry and deserved all of the praise that was heaped on him during his final assignment. And I’m not unreasonable, I don’t know that you could expect Jim Nantz — who gave up calling the NCAA Tournament — to step aside for Lundquist to call the final holes of The Masters, when he gave up another high-profile gig to spend more time focusing on golf’s biggest tournament.

But when a guy like Verne Lundquist — who you could argue belongs on the Mount Rushmore of TV play-by-players — is ending his career at a place that he says “means just about everything, professionally,” I think it has to enter someone’s brain to give him the chance to make the call.

Now, maybe the most likely scenario is that Nantz, or retiring CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus, did invite Lundquist to wrap his career by cementing Scottie Scheffler’s place in immortality at Augusta National. But watching Verne Lundquist from afar, it’s likely he decided to not shine the spotlight on himself. A quality that took him to the top of the sports broadcasting mountaintop.

I hope Lundquist appreciates all of the admiration shown to him over the past week, from contemporaries and those who participated in the action alike. It was our honor, and our privilege, to listen to Verne Lundquist for all those years. Not only at The Masters, but the Olympics, college football and basketball, and beyond.

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Q Myers, ‘GameNight’ Places Women’s Basketball at the Forefront on ESPN Radio

“I think everything we’ve done has built up where we continue to allow ourselves to do more because of what we’ve done and our consistency.”

Derek Futterman

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GameNight – ESPN Radio
(Illustration) Q Myers – Courtesy: Allen Kee, ESPN Images | Tara Sledjeski, Rachael Robinson – Courtesy: Mike Urrunaga, ESPN | Madison Booker – Courtesy: Stephen Spielman, Texas Athletics | Kiki Iriafen – Courtesy: Karen Amrbose Hickey, Stanford Athletics | Sonia Citron – Courtesy: Notre Dame Athletics | Audi Crooks; Addy Brown; Anna Miller – Courtesy: Zach Boyden-Holmes, The Des Moines Register | Ellie Mitchell – Courtesy: Princeton Athletics | Emme Shearer – Courtesy: Portland Athletics | Lauren Jensen – Courtesy: Creighton Athletics | Carly Thibault-DuDonis – Courtesy: Fairfield Athletics | Lindsay Gottlieb – Courtesy: USC Athletics | Joddie Gleason – Courtesy: Eastern Washington Athletics | Tamara Inoue – Courtesy: UCI Athletics | Lindy La Rocque – Courtesy: UNLV Athletics | Megan Griffith – Courtesy: Columbia Athletics | Katie Meier – Courtesy: Katie Meier Hurricane Basketball Camp | Karl Smesko – Courtesy: Brady Young Photo, FGCU Athletics | Vic Schaefer – Courtesy: Texas Athletics | J.R. Payne – Courtesy: Southern Utah Athletics | Jeff Mittie – Courtesy: The Topeka Capital-Journal | Additional Images – Courtesy: Facebook, Instagram

It all started with an idea and aspiration that the momentum would persist and continue to move in the right direction. Qiant Myers, a longtime radio veteran who works as the program director for the Las Vegas Sports Network and hosts several programs centered on the Las Vegas Raiders, was looking to do something different on ESPN Radio GameNight leading up to the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament. With March Madness rapidly approaching, the program devised a strategy to implement discussion about the teams and players within the bracket, diligently preparing by booking guests to be interviewed and contribute to the discussion.

Myers and his colleagues take part in a weekly listening session in which they review different parts of GameNight and discuss both strengths and weaknesses. ESPN Radio afternoon program director Mike Urrunaga often joins in these calls to provide his insights and analysis, looking to bolster the quality of the on-air product. The program utilizes a rotation of several hosts, including Myers, Emmett Golden and Jonathan Zaslow, all of whom bring a consistent approach to serve as a source of information and entertainment while inviting listener opinions.

Being based in Las Vegas, Nev., Myers can evince the presence of women’s sports and perceives its rapid proliferation in the marketplace. The Las Vegas Aces have won the WNBA championship in the last two seasons, while the University of Las Vegas is widely considered to have one of the strongest women’s basketball programs in the country.

At the same time, he recognized the success of new teams in establishing fanbases over time, including the Vegas Golden Knights. The defending Stanley Cup champions frequently fill T-Mobile Arena to standing-room capacity, embedded within the zeitgeist and sports renaissance taking place in the city. Concurrently, the Aces averaged at the top of the WNBA in average attendance last season and have leveraged on-court play and stars to help expand its fanbase. With the possibility of more professional sports leagues considering the city for relocation and/or expansion, Las Vegas is among the quintessential examples of sustaining and thriving with both women’s and men’s sports organizations.

“I felt like I already had a foot in the door because I’m paying attention to what’s going on,” Myers said. “I’ve been watching women’s basketball for a long time and really appreciate it.”

When Myers demonstrated his avidity for women’s basketball prior to the start of March Madness, his co-workers recognized that predilection and capitalized on it. In essence, GameNight worked to become the radio home of the tournament by crafting a distinctive sound and disseminating it en masse. The initiative was not only about introducing the athletes to listeners, but also showcasing their personalities and establishing an interpersonal connection.

“I’m a big believer in if the hosts are passionate about something, that passion will carry and it will draw listeners in,” show producer Tara Sledjeski said. “Anything you do – if your hosts are into it – I think you can sell it to the audience because they’re going to be interested in it if the hosts are into it.”

There were several coaches that appeared on the program whose husbands are members of the coaching staff. Additionally, some of the players presented anecdotes about how they would watch and attend women’s basketball games when they were younger and became inspired to pursue the career themselves. By humanizing the guests on GameNight, the interviews were able to more readily appeal to listeners, especially those who are either unfamiliar with or unwilling to accept the burgeoning pantheon of women’s sports.

“I think it is about finding those personal things of why you should be interested in these people, and I think with all sports, it always comes down to the stars, which we’ve especially learned with women’s basketball,” Sledjeski said. “Caitlin Clark – everyone cares about Caitlin Clark, so I think it’s just finding things that will make people resonate with these girls.”

Clark in particular has stood out among the pack of incoming WNBA players, catapulting to become one of the most eminent athletes in the world. Clark was recently drafted No. 1 overall by the Indiana Fever and became the top-selling draft pick in Fanatics history, garnering demand for her jersey from basketball fans around the world.

Nielsen measured the rematch of last year’s National Championship Game between Iowa and LSU to amass an average of 12.3 million viewers. Peaking at 16.1 million, the game marked the most-watched college basketball game to be presented on ESPN platforms before the Final Four.

ESPN went on to break that record two more times in the next five days, beginning with the Final Four game featuring Iowa and UConn that averaged 14.4 million viewers. Although Iowa did not win the National Championship Game, it posted a valiant effort against South Carolina in a game that attained 18.9 million viewers, ending tournament coverage that was up 121% year-over-year.

The metric was significant for Sledjeski, who grew up watching men’s sports and playing softball. When the sport was removed from the Olympic Games in 2008, she wondered what encapsulated the acme of the game, and the fact that these athletes could no longer win gold medals in the games was disheartening and perplexing. Watching the women’s National Championship game outdraw the men’s iteration for the first time in the history of March Madness represented a monumental achievement and step towards further prosperity.

While it can be difficult to attribute a direct correlation, those involved believe that GameNight had an effect on interest in women’s basketball based on observation and logic. Associate producer Rachael Robinson, who also works on the evening program Amber & Ian, enjoyed taking part in the tournament-specific endeavor, during which she learned about personnel within the sport and their indelible impact on its growth.

“Looking back, that was a fantastic idea,” Robinson said. “It’s kind of fun to be ahead of the game. I always enjoy it. People might question you in the moment, but once it blows up, because you know it’s going to eventually, you look like a genius.”

Since GameNight is under the ESPN company umbrella, the program is able to leverage the deep roster of multiplatform talent and have them on for segments during the show. For example, basketball analysts Andraya Carter and Carolyn Peck appeared on the show to discuss the tournament. Following the Final Four games, analyst Jimmy Dikes and reporter Holly Rowe also joined the program to provide their expertise within the overall discussion. ESPN recently reached a new, eight-year media rights agreement with the NCAA that grants the network rights to 40 championships, including all rounds of the Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament.

“It’s great that ESPN has the rights to all this,” Sledjeski explained, “because it helps us then to bring in our analysts and bring in people that were there and people that were on the call to give that insight of what’s going on.”

“They did such a fantastic job that it made ESPN, really truly the home not only on radio, but on TV,” Myers added. “….I felt like we were the voices leading into the tournament on the radio. I feel like it all worked together.”

Before the tournament began, the GameNight team worked to secure and feature several key figures from women’s basketball, such as Notre Dame guard and ACC defensive player of the year Hannah Hidalgo. Big 12 Conference co-player of the year Madison Booker, Pac-12 Conference most improved player of the year Kiki Iriafen and MAAC coach of the year Carly Thibault-DuDonis were also among the guests at this time. Aside from discussing the games themselves, the program also found ways to engage in storytelling that would effectuate a comprehensive synopsis as to their personas both on and off the court.

“We’re going to do all the research, [and] we’re going to get all the fun facts,” Myers said. “Tara does a great job of that, and obviously I’m going to do my research at the same time…. We did the show before the show because we were just so busy grinding, but that’s the beauty of it.”

As the producer of GameNight, Sledjeski knows that it made the program a more compelling listen in going beyond the action on the court. Certain answers and details stood out within its coverage pertaining to a variety of topics, one of which was a joint interview with Iowa State freshman center Audi Crooks and freshman forward Addy Brown. The teammates became close friends throughout the season and discussed the camaraderie between them and the rest of the team. Furthermore, the program welcomed UNLV head coach Lindy La Rocue who shed light on balancing her personal and professional responsibilities.

“My mind is still blown by her story because last year, she literally had her first child in early November and she was back on the sidelines coaching a week later,” Sledjeski said. “That is mind-blowing, and she gave a great answer about her daughter always being around the team and how she can’t separate things.”

Amid the tournament, GameNight had a plethora of athletes and coaches on the airwaves for interviews, including Oklahoma forward Skylar Vann, Oregon State guard Talia von Oelhoffen and North Carolina guard Alyssa Ustby. Sledjeski informed members of the show to tag the specific universities and basketball programs who the players were representing, which led to several subsequent posts and additional engagement. Robinson was responsible for posting audio from these conversations, and she hopes to augment the breadth of digital distribution accompanying the national radio exposure.

“I really enjoyed it because it was different, because a lot of shows were paying attention to it because it was an initiative and it was going so well,” Robinson said, “but they were very good at getting the lesser-known stories out of the tournament and really pushing them and becoming the home of the tournament.”

In addition to guest interviews and discussion on the air, GameNight also cultivated a social media campaign where it ranked and created a bracket to determine the best Division I basketball program in the country. Women’s and men’s programs engaged in head-to-head battles determined by fan votes on social media about who would win each matchup. Sledjeski presented the concept and seeded the teams for the six-round competition situated similar to March Madness. There were 16 teams within each division (East; Midwest; South; West), narrowing the bracket from 64 to the Final Four.

“That was a whole lot of work to put that bracket together,” Myers said. “Just by her wanting to put that together got me excited about it. It made me want to be like, ‘Yeah, let’s lean into this. Let’s do this. If she’s willing to put in that work, let’s lean into it, let’s have some fun with it and let’s talk about it.’”

Visualizing the competition in a bracket format tied into the theme surrounding March Madness, but determining the exact theme of the venture took several iterations. As she continued to ruminate on how such an effort could surface and elicit broad interest, she began to weigh teams experiencing current success and those who had been perennial champions of yore.

“The more you think about it, it’s really tough with all sports and if you’re trying to cover all pros and programs,” Sledjeski said. “I was trying to narrow it down, and I really don’t know what popped into my head, but I thought it’d be really cool when you think about, ‘Okay, we know the UConn women are doing really good; also then how do they compare to the Duke men?’”

ESPN Radio shared polls on X with two basketball teams and asked users to vote on which one was the stronger all-time program. After 60 rounds of voting, the championship matchup came down to the North Carolina Tar Heels men’s basketball program against the UConn Huskies women’s basketball program. In the end, the UConn women’s team garnered just over 92% of the final vote, taking home the championship in the bracket competition. Monitoring the engagement and interaction on social media, Robinson noticed that there was palpable enthusiasm towards the project. In fact, many programs from around the country recognized the campaign and implored their fanbase to vote in an effort to capture the title.

“It was a very interesting way to look at it because it wasn’t the same, ‘Oh, here’s this; here’s this,’” Robinson said. “It was, ‘Look at the history of these two sports and pick the best one.’”

With the book on this year’s edition of March Madness closed, it does not indicate the end of covering women’s sports on GameNight and ESPN Radio. As teams across the WNBA prepare for opening night next month, collegiate stars including Caitlin Clark, Cameron Brink and Kamilla Cardoso aim to make an impact and assimilate into the league. Building off the momentum from the tournament, ESPN Radio intends to feature a WNBA player every week of the season, an effort that will likely coincide with games on television.

Viewership of the league last season reached a 17-year high with an average of 440,000 people watching games presented on ESPN, ABC and ESPN2. With national media rights for both the WNBA and NBA expiring after next season, respective league commissioners Cathy Engelbert and Adam Silver have addressed the growth of both entities. ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery are currently in an exclusive negotiating window with the NBA that runs through next Monday, April 22. ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro believes that the WNBA will be included in a potential renewal with the NBA, a league that is reportedly aiming to implement a regular streaming element into its portfolio.

For now, GameNight is focused on utilizing its resources and platform to drive awareness of and interest in women’s sports through storytelling and regular discussion. The shifting paradigm within athletics has placed women’s sports at the center of conversations rather than it being disregarded or considered an afterthought.

“I think that it’s continuing to get better and growing, and obviously the star power is always going to help because now there’s people in this tournament obviously that watch the game because Caitlin Clark was fantastic,” Myers said. “Now hopefully, now there’s sticking power [and] now hopefully they come back and say, ‘Oh man, let me see it again…’ Now I feel like I can feature more as well, and it’s appreciated instead of, ‘Oh, they’re trying to force feed it because they’re trying to play nice with the ladies.’”

Deloitte projects women’s sports to generate more than $1 billion in revenue for the first time this year, coverage of which comes from ESPN through its radio, television and digital platforms. The team at GameNight and ESPN Radio have discerned and witnessed audience interest in various leagues, teams and games themselves that comprise women’s sports. These discussions are not derivative or contrived in nature; rather, they are genuine opinions that emanate from keen focus on implications and outcomes therein. GameNight intends to continue shattering glass ceilings while not allowing prejudicial, misogynistic commentaries to impede the progress towards equality.

“I think everything we’ve done has built up where we continue to allow ourselves to do more because of what we’ve done and our consistency,” Myers said. “…We’ve earned the right to continue to build up what we’ve already started and see how far it can go.”

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